Louisiana lawmakers may limit the amount of time people who’ve been arrested can sit in jail without being charged with a crime. Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, is hoping his legislation will reduce the number of people who are detained in jails without being convicted of a crime across the state.
Louisiana is infamous for having the highest post-conviction incarceration rate in the country, but the state also had one of the highest pre-trial detention rates in 2020, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.
About .5 percent of Louisiana residents ages 15 to 64 were in jail awaiting trial last year, according to the advocacy organization. The state’s pretrial jail detention rate is more than three times the national average, according to the report.
The number of people sitting in jail before trial was also growing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. From 2015 to 2020, Louisiana’s pretrial incarceration rate jumped 10 percent, according to the ACLU’s research.
James has proposed reducing that rate by limiting the number of days an arrested person can be held in a jail without being charged with a crime. The Louisiana House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice voted 5-4 for his bill, with Democrats, a Republican and an independent legislator supporting it. The full Louisiana House is expected to vote on the legislation in the coming weeks.
Under the current law, a person can be held in jail after an initial bail hearing with a judge for 45 days before they are charged with a misdemeanor offense, 60 days before they are charged with lower-level felonies and 120 days before they are charged with felonies that carry a punishment of life in prison or death. Some legislators are interested in shrinking those timelines, though a specific number of days hasn’t been agreed to yet.
Not so long ago, legislators actually voted to extend that timeline for the most serious crimes. U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, as a state lawmaker, pushed through a new law in 2007 that increased the timeline for bringing charges for felonies like murder from 60 days to 120 days. Thousands of people were released from the New Orleans jail after Hurricane Katrina because a former district attorney didn’t charge them with a crime in time to keep them locked up. At the time, Scalise said the new law was a response to that problem.
James’ current bill reduces the pre-trial jail wait time to a maximum of five days for a misdemeanor and 30 days for all felonies, but even his allies consider those timelines too short to be workable. Two of the five lawmakers who voted for James’ legislation said they agreed the wait times need to be reduced, but not by as much as James’ originally proposed. James agreed to look at a compromise — one that includes longer timelines — before his bill comes up for a vote on the House floor.
“I think the time periods that are in the bill are a little ambitious,” said Rep. Joe Marino, an independent from Gretna who voted for the legislation. “I don’t agree that’s enough time for most offenses.”
James’ legislation was voted out of the House committee over the objections of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association. The executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association also expressed concerns about it.
They said Louisiana’s criminal justice system isn’t well funded enough to work faster. Louisiana would have to spend more money on district attorney staff, extra judges, the state crime lab and law enforcement to make an accelerated timeline work.
“The reality is that this is a staffing, and hence, funding issue,” said Bo Duhe, the district attorney for St. Martin, Iberia and St. Mary parishes. “It’s just impractical to do it in such a quick time frame.”
But supporters for the bill argued that there are substantial financial consequences for people who spend a long time in jail after being arrested. The current laws set up a situation where people who are never charged with a crime could lose their job or home — or even put their custody arrangements in jeopardy — because they have to spend so much time in jail before they are released.
Stephanie Willis, with the ACLU of Louisiana, said Louisiana is one of only eight states that allows people to be held in custody for more than 45 days without a criminal charge. Twenty other states have a 30-day time limit.
Yet lawmakers opposed to the bill suggested that if prosecutors were forced to operate on a shorter timeline, they would end up bringing charges against people more often. The prosecutors would “default to public safety” by keeping people locked up if they were forced to make a decision quicker.
“I’m just afraid that the fix is going to create more problems for the system,” said Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, a former prosecutor.
Still, legislators who backed the bill said the system was never going to improve unless it was pushed to do so.
“My opinion is that we should not keep innocent people in jail because we don’t allocate the money to adjudicate their cases timely,” said Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville. “We can’t keep putting that on the backs of innocent people.”